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Australian leadership on new technologies of warfare

Posted By on May 30, 2017 @ 11:00

Image courtesy of Pixabay user Unsplash.

Since 2015 Australia—partnering with Switzerland—has built support among 36 countries [1] to address concerns about military and police forces’ interest in the use of highly toxic chemicals, such as anaesthetic and sedative agents, as weapons for law enforcement. This is a great achievement on an issue first brought forward [2] by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 2003, and on which there has been scant multilateral progress. Particularly so given that in recent years the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has been focused on efforts to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons and put a halt to the repeated use of chemical weapons in Syria and Iraq [3].

This development signals two important characteristics of Australia’s approach: a willingness to tackle threats to international law and civilian protection, even where there are significant differences in viewpoints among countries; and an ability to remain attentive to emerging risks, even while embroiled in an ongoing crisis.

Such international leadership is urgently needed in other areas where science and technology collide with international law and humanitarian concerns.

The ICRC, for its part, has always pressed for a realistic assessment of new technologies of warfare to ensure they are not employed prematurely if respect for the law cannot be guaranteed. And so I’m pleased to be in Australia this week to take part in the Symposium on the Ethical, Legal and Social Implications of Emerging Military Technologies [4] at Melbourne Law School.

At the UN, efforts to address the implications of increasing autonomy in weapon systems have moved forward slowly. General agreement [5] among States that ‘views on appropriate human involvement with regard to lethal force and the issue of delegation of its use are of critical importance’ has been an important outcome of three, week-long, informal discussions at the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW). However, this work now needs to step up a gear.

Here there are opportunities for constructive proposals—based on states’ obligation to uphold international humanitarian law [6] (IHL) and minimise risks to civilians and to combatants no longer taking part in hostilities.

Australia’s efforts [7] to promote better implementation of the legal obligation, and policy necessity, for countries to conduct national legal reviews of new weapons prior to their acquisition or use, are very welcome. It’s something the ICRC has long advocated [8]. However the ICRC believes there is a critical need to achieve an understanding at the international level on how to ensure that humans remain in control of weapon systems and the use of force while making the necessary legal decisions on targeting in armed conflict.

What’s needed now is state-driven work by the newly established CCW Group of Government Experts [9] to start answering the difficult questions. Recognising the critical importance of human ‘involvement’, ‘control’ and ‘judgement’ in the use of force in armed conflict, the ICRC has suggested [10] that states now determine the type and degree of human control necessary to ensure compliance with IHL, and ethical acceptability. Switzerland’s IHL ‘compliance based’ approach [11] has gained significant support, in particular from Brazil, Chile, Finland, Netherlands, Republic of Korea, South Africa, and Sweden, at the CCW Review Conference in December 2016. Here again, Australia might consider the benefits of joining Switzerland and other concerned States.

Similar arguments for foresight and unity could be made for international debates about other new technologies of warfare. Recently, discussions about robotic weapon systems that are not autonomous but remain remote controlled have focussed on transparency in armed drone operations [12]. With the rapid proliferation of military drones to over 90 countries, and non-State armed groups starting to employ improvised versions, the implications for IHL compliance and humanitarian consequences could evolve considerably. Could a move towards reliance on robotic weapon systems on land lead to new risks for civilian populations?

Elsewhere, international discussions on cyber warfare—notably through another UN GGE [13], which Australia chaired from 2012-13—have been considering the applicability of international law in cyberspace.  Australia has stressed [14] the importance of ‘elaboration of how international law applies to states’ behaviour in cyberspace especially in non-conflict situations.’

Nevertheless, there is also a need to consider the potential humanitarian consequences of the use of cyber weapons in armed conflict and constraints that may be needed in future on cyber weapons development, acquisition and use. Some ideas are also emerging from industry, for example Microsoft’s recent proposal for a ‘Digital Geneva Convention [15]’ for peacetime, which might influence the debate in situations of armed conflict.

The risks from weapons targeting space systems are also of increasing concern. Although the recurring UN General Assembly Resolution on the prevention of an arms race in outer space has almost universal support, there are different views among major powers on the means of prevention. Given these realities, Australia has called for greater focus on voluntary transparency and confidence building measures [16].

From the ICRC’s perspective, the ever-increasing military attention to the contested domains of cyber and outer space, and the reliance of civilian infrastructure and services on these interconnected networks, bring with them a particular need to consider the potential humanitarian consequences.

There’s much work to do.  Australia—with its government, think-tank, and academic expertise—is well placed to play a greater role.



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URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/australian-leadership-new-technologies-warfare/

URLs in this post:

[1] built support among 36 countries: https://www.opcw.org/fileadmin/OPCW/CSP/C-21/national_statements/c21nat03_e_.pdf

[2] brought forward: https://www.icrc.org/eng/resources/documents/statement/5m4bgc.htm

[3] Iraq: https://www.icrc.org/en/document/iraq-icrc-strongly-condemns-use-chemical-weapons-around-mosul

[4] Symposium on the Ethical, Legal and Social Implications of Emerging Military Technologies: http://www.premt.net/events/

[5] General agreement: http://www.unog.ch/80256EDD006B8954/(httpAssets)/6BB8A498B0A12A03C1257FDB00382863/$file/Recommendations_LAWS_2016_AdvancedVersion+(4+paras)+.pdf

[6] international humanitarian law: https://www.icrc.org/eng/assets/files/other/what_is_ihl.pdf

[7] efforts: http://www.unog.ch/80256EDD006B8954/(httpAssets)/008A00242684E78FC1257F920057BD3C/$file/2016_LAWS+MX_GeneralExchange_Statements_Australia.pdf

[8] long advocated: https://shop.icrc.org/guide-de-l-examen-de-la-liceite-des-nouvelles-armes-et-des-nouveaux-moyens-et-methodes-de-guerre-mise-en-oeuvre-des-dispositions-de-l-article-36-du-protocole-additionnel-i-de-2135.html

[9] CCW Group of Government Experts: http://www.unog.ch/80256EE600585943/(httpPages)/49166481C076C45AC12571C0003A51C0?OpenDocument

[10] ICRC has suggested: https://www.icrc.org/en/document/statement-icrc-lethal-autonomous-weapons-systems

[11] IHL ‘compliance based’ approach: http://www.unog.ch/80256EDD006B8954/(httpAssets)/D2D66A9C427958D6C1257F8700415473/$file/2016_LAWS+MX_CountryPaper+Switzerland.pdf

[12] transparency in armed drone operations: http://www.unidir.org/programmes/security-and-society/increasing-uav-transparency-oversight-and-accountability

[13] another UN GGE: https://www.un.org/disarmament/topics/informationsecurity

[14] stressed: https://unoda-web.s3-accelerate.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Australia.pdf

[15] Digital Geneva Convention: https://blogs.microsoft.com/on-the-issues/2017/04/13/growing-consensus-need-international-treaty-nation-state-attacks/#sm.00000xug0dgombdokx6uzoaywsed2

[16] transparency and confidence building measures: https://www.un.org/disarmament/topics/outerspace/sg-report-outer-space/

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